Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Bizarro World

“Yeah, like Bizarro Superman – Superman’s exact opposite, who lives in the backwards, Bizarro World. Up is down, down is up. He says “Hello” when he leaves, “Goodbye” when he arrives.”

Superman introduced it, Seinfeld talked about it, and on Sunday, the Bengals lived it…

Bizarro World.

You see, the Bengals don’t beat the Steelers, especially not in Cincinnati. For whatever reason, it just doesn’t happen. In fact, the past eight times the two teams have played in Cincy, it hasn’t happened – until now. For the first time in nearly a decade, the Bengals took care of Pittsburgh in the Queen City, beating the dreaded Steelers in front of our home crowd. And for the first time since God created the Heavens and the Earth, the Bengals did everything the exact opposite of how they usually do things. Because for once, everything went right. How bizarre.

Unfortunately, it didn’t start that way for Cincinnati on Sunday. Actually, it started the way it always seems to start when the Bengals play the Steelers, as the Black & Orange finished the 1st quarter with a vomit-inducing negative-10 yards from scrimmage. The offense looked atrocious, and the defense was hanging on for dear life. Cincy QB Carson Palmer was completely out of sync, overthrowing receivers and forcing balls into triple coverage. All I could do was roll my eyes, scratch my head, and mutter things under my breath like “Unbelievable” and “What the…?”. If it wasn’t for Pittsburgh’s inability to put the ball in the end zone and a Cincy field goal just before halftime, the Steelers’ 13-3 lead could have been a lot worse.

Things began to look a little better for the Bengals at the start of the second half, when cornerback Jonathon Joseph picked off Steelers’ QB Ben Roethlisberger and returned the ball for a touchdown, bringing the score to 13-9. But nevertheless, even a sparkling moment like that one – which was a huge play at the time – wouldn’t be complete for Cincinnati without a sack of feces dropped on top. Following the defensive touchdown, with the team’s spirits high and the crowd going bonkers, Bengals long-snapper Brad St. Louis (whom I despise) snapped the ball into orbit, instead of into the holder’s hands. What could have been a huge play and only a field goal deficit had become a nice play with a bad ending and a weird, 4-point deficit. It’s just the way things always seem to work out for the Bengals. After a while, you come to expect it.

(Short tangent: It’s obvious how outspoken my hatred of Brad St. Louis is, because after he snapped the extra-point try like a drunken fool, I immediately received eight text messages – yeah eight – from eight different people, all commenting on how right I was and how they all agreed with me that he is completely worthless. The only silver-lining to this is getting to come up with eight different disparaging comments about the man to text back to my friends and family. But seriously, the man has one job (long-snapping) and he can’t go a single game without screwing up. Cut him loose. Please!!!)

The Steelers took advantage of St. Worthless crushing our dreams, driving down the field two possessions later and scoring, pushing their lead to 20-9 with only three minutes remaining in the third. Can the Bengals, who haven’t beaten the Steelers since the Stone Age, really come back from an 11-point deficit with a little over a quarter left to play? No. No chance. Not gonna happen. Start the buses, hit the showers, clear the field. Haven’t we learned anything from the past? The Bengals aren’t coming back, and we’ll all just have to deal with it.

But then, something happened. At a time when the old Bengals – the Bungals – would have laid down and died, this team didn’t. This team didn’t look beaten or dejected. This team didn’t curl up into the fetal position and let the mighty Steelers walk all over them yet again. Actually, this Bengals team started to fight back, to believe in each other. It’s like they were the exact opposite of every Bengals team from the past two decades. Somehow, they were different.

They ran a fake punt for a first down, something the old Bengals would have royally messed up had they tried it (which they wouldn’t have). The defense started to look mean, hungry even, getting after Roethlisberger and making tough hits. The offense even got in a groove, charging down the field with just under 13 minutes left in the game. Palmer to Caldwell, 14 yards. Palmer to Ochocinco, another 14 yards. Run by Cedric Benson, 8 yards. Palmer to Coles, 9 yards. And then…BOOM! Benson takes a carry off the left side for a 23 yard touchdown run. Wait, did that really happen? Did the Bengals just run for a 20+ yard TD…against the Steelers?!?! Yeah, something was definitely different.

Now down by only five (20-15) with just over nine minutes left, the Bengals needed to get a stop on defense and get the ball back. And they did. On a 3rd down and 6 at the Pittsburgh 37 yard line, the Bengals defensive line swarmed Roethlisberger like a group of fat men at a Dunkin’ Donuts, taking down the QB for a 5-yard sack. The old Bengals would have folded like a lawn chair, watching their hopes of victory fade away as the Steelers mowed down the field, eating up the clock until it struck zero. But not this time.

After a nice punt return to their own 29 yard line, Cincy was left with 5:14 on the clock to go 81 yards, erase a five-point deficit and possibly years of psychological damage. And with that, Carson Palmer and the offense started a drive that we could be talking about all year in Cincinnati.

Palmer went 3-3 passing for 31 yards, with Benson chipping in 11 yards on the ground to get the Bengals to the Pittsburgh 29 at the two-minute warning. Meanwhile, I was nervously pacing back and forth in my room, snapping my fingers and breathing heavily. After an 8 yard pass to Caldwell, the Bengals went for the endzone on a 3rd and 2 lob to Ochocinco. My heart stopped on a dime, but the pass landed incomplete. I let out a sigh, knowing that it was 4th and 2 with only a minute left. Who was I kidding? Why was I setting myself up for disappointment? Could the Bengals really convert a big 4th down, a mere 20 yards away from the endzone, with only a minute left? Really?

Yes. Quick pass from Palmer to Coles for 5 yards, first down, 48 seconds left. Now I’m shaking like a coke-addict, trying to figure out what in the world was going on. But I didn’t have time, because before I knew it, it was 4th down again, this time with 10 yards to go for a first down. I can’t take it. I’m about to go into cardiac arrest. I’m standing inches away from the screen, hands over my eyes, peering through the cracks of my fingers like a 7-year old watching the Blair Witch Project. They couldn’t possibly do it again. Not against Pittsburgh, not on 4th and 10. These are the plays that never, EVER go right for the Cincinnati Bengals. Ask anyone. An 87-yard tipped pass, caught and ran back for a game-winning touchdown against the Bengals in the waning seconds of a game is the type of thing that happens to us, but not this.

Wrong. Palmer maneuvered the pocket like a brain-surgeon maneuvers the skull, meticulously cutting his way into space, and hitting Brian Leonard with an eight-yard pass. And while I’m literally pulling my hair out and clutching my chest, Leonard tip-toes down the sideline, diving headfirst for the yard-marker, getting the first down by two feet. I was shocked. Couldn’t believe it. I was ashamed I had even questioned Palmer earlier in the game. I actually apologized to him out loud. Because now, with 18 seconds left, from the 4-yard line, it was only a matter of time. This game was as good as won for Cincinnati. They had already proved that they were different, that this wasn’t your older brother’s Bengals. Palmer, who was playing like a combination of Joe Naimath and Jesus, was going to lead them in for the score, and there was nothing the sad, stupid Steelers could do about it. Despite years of heartache and failure in moments exactly like this one, it was clearly evident that this was a whole new animal. Somehow I knew, everyone knew, the Bengals were going to win. Different? Different doesn’t even begin to describe it.

Palmer takes the snap…drops back to pass…looking right…back to the middle…cocks…throws….he’s got Caldwell…TOUCHDOWN!!!!!!!!

It was like poetry in the making. The Bengals, a perpetual doormat for the Pittsburgh Steelers, had defended their own turf. They fought back, after an abysmal first-half and an 11 point deficit, for the victory. They defeated the defending Super Bowl Champs. They stared the Football Gods straight in the face and openly defied them. The feeling was indescribable. Up was down, down was up. Just when they could have kissed their chances “goodbye”, they came right back and said “hello”. They did the exact opposite of what they always do. They did the impossible.

This was more than just a Week 3 victory. This was a comeback win against our arch rival, after years of standing in their shadow. This was a win for the city, just as much as it was for the team. It was a win for the countless number of fans that have sat by for years and wondered when the Bengals would man-up and fight back when they were pushed into a corner. This was a win that everyone was a part of, from the players and coaches on the field, to the 20-year-old jackass kid pacing in his dorm room, 200 miles away. It was backwards and beautiful, all at the same time.

And that’s the wonderful thing about football, about being a fan. Every Bengals fan out their felt like they were a part of that victory, like they somehow played a role in the win. When I changed into a different Bengals shirt after halftime (which I actually did), I felt like it made a difference. When I was jumping up and down, yelling at Carson Palmer to watch out for the weak-side pressure (which I actually did), I felt like he could hear me. When I went to Wal-Mart after the game, pointing and laughing at anyone wearing Steelers’ gear (which I also actually did…three times), I felt like everyone in the Cincinnati locker room was pointing and laughing right along with me. And when I hugged and high-fived random Bengals fans while screaming “Who-Dey” at the top of our lungs (which, yes, I actually did), they felt more like brothers than complete strangers (which they actually were).

Because it was more than just a win. It was a unique and exhilarating experience, an unanticipated and indescribable bond between a team and a fanbase. This team showed us something in one week that no Bengals team (including the ’05 Division Champs) has shown since the ‘80s: desire and perseverance. It was surprising. It was shocking. It was different. It was completely, utterly and unequivocally…bizarre.

But if Sunday was any indication, it could very well become the norm.

Thanks for reading

Friday, September 11, 2009

Air to the Throne

There are very few people in this world that can be described as genuinely cool. Even when scanning the memory banks of big name stars and celebrities over the past decades, it’s tough to come up with unanimous decisions on who had “it”, that indescribable quality that makes someone cool. The list is small. James Dean had it. Frank Sinatra had it. Will Smith and Pierce Brosnon have it. No matter what those guys did, it never failed to drive the ladies wild and leave the rest of us men wistfully hoping to be like them for a fleeting second in our mundane lives. It’s a level that all aspire towards, but very few ever succeed at. And in the throes of that list is one Michael Jeffrey Jordan, a man definitely and undeniably on that level. There is no doubt that Michael Jordan is cool.

The greatest basketball player to ever grace the planet made the game seem easy. He could dominate at will, will his team to a win, and win over the heart of any person that watched him play. At the height of his game, he seemed to take the whole world by storm, as people across the globe became entranced by his desire and dominance over the sport of basketball. But even more than that, Jordan created a legend for himself. He wasn’t just the greatest, he was the coolest as well. He made sneakers cool. He made dunking cool. He made longer, baggier basketball shorts cool. Whatever it was that he did (drinking Gatorade, eating McDonalds, wearing Hanes), it always seemed to become the next big thing. The guy even made man-earrings cool. Yeah, I said it, man-earrings. Wham! and Billy Idol couldn’t do it, but Michael could. It’s just who he was. He made greatness look cool.

This weekend, Michael Jordan will be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts, an event as unexpected as the sun rising in the east or Lidsay Lohan making another crappy movie. As nice as the gesture is, putting Jordan in the Basketball Hall of Fame is like putting Halle Berry in the Official Hot Girls Club; it’s already a foregone conclusion. Nevertheless, MJ’s induction has given us a chance to look back on the career of arguably the greatest athlete of all-time. In doing so, one can really see what all the fuss is about.

Jordan’s statistics alone are enough to describe his greatness. His six NBA Championships, five MVP Awards, six Finals’ MVP Awards, 10 Scoring Titles, nine All-Defensive First Team Selections, and 14 All-Star Games makes it pretty obvious how incredible he was. But the accolades are barely half of the story. It was not so much Michael’s overall accomplishments that made him the best, but more his attitude and signature moments. The success is in his numbers, but the prominence is in his legacy.

Never has there been a competitor like Jordan. The man was more driven to succeed than anyone he played against, hungrier than anyone that ever picked up a ball. Failure didn’t seem to be an option for him; whatever it took to win, that’s what MJ would do. This persona is what dubbed him the most intense basketballer on the planet.

In only his second season in the league (’85-’86), Jordan helped the once putrid Chicago Bulls to the NBA Playoffs against the league juggernaut Boston Celtics. After scoring 49 points in Game 1 of the series, Jordan put up a playoff record 63 points in Game 2, in the Boston Garden, before the Bulls lost in double overtime. Despite the win, NBA and Celtics great Larry Bird was quoted after the game as saying, “That was God disguised as Michael Jordan.” And if you know anything about Larry Legend, then you know he doesn’t exactly hand out compliments like sticks of gum. In only a short time, the legend of Air Jordan had already begun.

The stories of Michael’s greatness and need to succeed go on and on. He once scored 69 points in a game. He shot a free throw with his eyes closed – during a real game, mind you – just because an opponent put him up to it. Oh, and he made it. Remember that thing about being cool…

He hit six three pointers in the FIRST HALF of a Finals game against the Blazers. He had a triple-double in an All-Star game. He was once heckled by a Utah fan for dunking on a smaller John Stockton, so he promptly came down the next possession and dunked on 7-footer Mel Turpin, after which he turned to the fan and asked, “Was he big enough?”

In Game 5 of the 1997 Finals against the Utah Jazz, Jordan played with the flu (yeah, the flu) and scored 38 points, leading his team to victory. I can barely drag myself from my bed to the toilet when I have the flu, and this man was dominating a game in the NBA Finals. If that doesn’t spell greatness, I don’t know what does.

Michael was the most clutch player the sport of basketball has ever seen. He made game-winning shots seem as routine to him as taking out the trash is to the rest of us. And in the six times which he led his team to the NBA Finals, he was never beaten. Not once. It was in these big moments that Michael excelled beyond belief. Whenever the game was on the line, Michael came shining through.

His will to win is also what made him such an intense and ferocious teammate. He wouldn’t accept failure, on his part or his team’s. And yet despite his perfectionist attitude, he was revered by everyone that he ever played with and against. The great coach Pat Riley even retired Michael’s #23 Chicago Bulls jersey…while Riley was coach of the Miami Heat! It was his drive to be the best and the respect Jordan had for the game that led to the respect of his peers. Regardless of how many times he had handed them defeat, they knew he had earned it, and they couldn’t resent him for that.

Jordan also gained the respect of the people. From Chicago to China, His Airness was universally loved, for the simple reasons that his effort and heart for success were unquestionable. Whether we witnessed him exalted in success, humbled in defeat, or humanized by off-the-court tribulations, we always saw him endure, always saw him strive to be better. It was nearly impossible not to worship him.

But what made Jordan so easy to like, so easy to admire, was the indisputable love he had for the game of basketball. When you hear the man talk about the sport, it’s almost like listening to a beaming parent talk about one of their kids. Michael has such deep passion and reverence for the game that it is not surprising he was so driven to succeed at it. It’s almost as if he felt he owed it to the game to be the best. And if that’s true, then his debt is more than repaid.

As a generation of people that were lucky enough to watch Michael play, we need to appreciate just how special it was to see; very rarely does greatness to the degree of Jordan’s come along. When it does, we need to relish in it for as long as we possibly can, because there is no telling when something like it will happen again. Watching Michael Jordan on the court is on the same level as watching Van Gogh paint a canvass or Mozart compose a symphony; that’s how well he mastered the game.

And while a Hall of Fame induction may seem only paltry for a man of Michael’s greatness, it will have to suffice for now. At the very least, it is just another good excuse to spend time reflecting on the career and legacy of the greatest of all time.

What exactly is that legacy, you ask? Well, when questioned at the Hall of Fame Ceremony’s press conference what imprint MJ has left on the game, someone simply commented, “There will never be another Michael Jordan.”

The “someone” who said it? The man himself – Michael Jeffrey Jordan.

And best of all, the statement had nothing to do with his ego. In fact, it wasn’t even remotely arrogant or vain.

It was just cool.

Thanks for reading